1. MIMETIC THEORY ON “THE UNCANNY VALLEY”
Originally I just wanted to write a post on the uncanny valley, a phenomenon first described by Masahiro Mori (former robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology) in an essay for Japanese magazine Energy (vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 33–35, 1970) – READ THE ARTICLE ON THE UNCANNY VALLEY BY MASAHIRO MORI IN ENGLISH BY CLICKING HERE (OR PDF VERSION HERE). But as you will notice, dear reader, it made me think about some other stuff as well 🙂 …
Mori predicted that we would respond with a heightened sense of affinity to robots that act or look like humans until a certain threshold of similarity is reached. Apparently, when it becomes too difficult to make a direct and clear distinction between humans and robots, humanoid robots become uncanny and we experience an eerie sensation. In the words of Mori, we indeed come to an uncanny valley.
Mori ended his article by raising a few questions: “Why were we equipped with this eerie sensation? Is it essential for human beings? I have not yet considered these questions deeply, but I have no doubt it is an integral part of our instinct for self-preservation.”
Mori also provides a preliminary answer to these questions in a footnote:
“The sense of eeriness is probably a form of instinct that protects us from proximal, rather than distal, sources of danger. Proximal sources of danger are corpses, members of different species, and other entities we can closely approach. Distal sources of danger include windstorms and floods.”
This is all very interesting from the perspective of René Girard’s mimetic theory. It helps in providing an answer to Mori’s questions.
René Girard considers man’s increased mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability as a source of empathy as well as enmity, as a force responsible for order as well as disorder. For instance, children tend to take older people as their example. By imitating elders (and others in general) young people not only learn how to live in a certain culture, but they also learn what to desire. Others also function as models for desires and ambitions.
Of course, when the gap between an imitator and a model is big enough, there won’t be any problem between them. The relationship between a mentor and a pupil will then be one of admiration from the part of the pupil. However, when an imitator’s skills increase he might become a threat to the position of his model. As he has learned to desire the same objects as his model, his model might become an obstacle to his ambitions. Adolescents indeed often show a tendency to no longer respect a former hierarchy. They tend to become rivals to adults whose authority they no longer automatically accept. They as well as the adults thus experience an identity crisis. In other words, the gap between youngsters and adults threatens to disappear and this potentially destabilizes human communities. Following Mori’s terminology we can call this gap where the distinction between young and old seems to disappear an uncanny valley. Girard observes that, in order to avoid a crisis resulting from this kind of intra-group rivalry, cultures have developed initiation rituals. These rituals often allow for types of violence against “new adults” in a controlled, structured way (for instance in a certain time frame) in order to give them “a proper place” and to avoid destructive rivalries and violence. It is no coincidence that student sororities and fraternities to this day make use of initiation ceremonies. Like many rituals in many cultures they paradoxically create an order by “organized disorder”. Sometimes these rituals are very violent, however, with girls being gang raped – to name but one of the terrors. That’s why some students are committed to end “frat-related violence”.
So to answer Mori’s questions already from the point of view of Girard’s mimetic theory: we have learned, in the course of our evolution as human species, to fear the disappearance of differences because we have learned to associate it with destructive types of rivalry and violence. That’s why, as Mori observes, “corpses, members of different species and other entities we can closely approach” (and identify with) are experienced as “sources of danger”. Youngsters can take the place of adults, robots of humans… and rotting corpses (similar to but not quite the same as living human beings) can generate diseases and death where once there was life. Indeed violence itself is like a disease, contagious.
Apart from the potential rivalry between and among youngsters and adults there’s another type of rivalry that has been experienced as a fundamental threat to the survival and stability of human communities: the rivalry between men to obtain “the best females” of a group. No wonder then that sexuality, and in particular female sexuality, has been perceived as a potential destructive force across different cultures. Because of its association with rivalry and violence, sexuality could easily become a taboo. On the other hand however, sexuality is also needed to guarantee a community’s survival. As is the case with adolescence, sexuality became a ritualized cultural phenomenon in human life (from courtship dances to temple prostitution to marriage). Rituals in general allow for a transgression of that which is taboo in everyday life.
Traditionally, a collection of taboos and rituals in a particular culture is justified by referring to a sacred realm (with supernatural deities, ghosts or magic forces). Mimetic theory explains how violence became associated with “invisible persons” through the scapegoat mechanism (READ MORE ON THE ORIGIN OF RELIGION BY CLICKING HERE). Hence everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become associated with “invisible persons” or “gods” as well. Sadly the sacralization of sexuality often meant that women became scapegoats, unjustly held responsible for a potential crisis in the life of their respective communities. Women had (or have) to prevent men from desiring them, thereby preventing rivalries between men. In some cultures they had (or have) to wear a veil in public, in others they were (or are) circumcized. The reasons to this day given for female genital mutilation indeed hardly conceal the underlying sexism – taken from the European Campaign to end FGM: “FGM, in particular infibulation, is defended in this context as it is assumed to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and lessen temptations to have extramarital sex thereby preserving a girl’s virginity.” Extramarital sex is considered taboo in this context since it could stir rivalry between men, destabilize family life and hence destabilize community life as a whole. Female sexuality, taboo because it is perceived as a potential violent force, thus is highly ritualized: female circumcision is a form of sacrificial violence to prevent destructive violence (perceived as “the wrath of the gods”) from happening.
In short, human history shows that women all over the world, in different times and in different cultures, have been perceived as “dangerous life-bringers”. They are feared and adored at the same time (read more on this by clicking here – post on TEMPTRESSES). Important and well-known myths from all over the world have transmitted the perception of women as potential troublemakers. I’d like to dedicate the second part of this post to a presentation of three versions of this perception of women. The message concerning Pandora, Eve and “uncircumcized women” should be clear. These women are considered to bring about “the uncanny valley”, the loss of differences that marks the breakdown of the normal social order. Indeed, chaos and disorder in communities is often perceived as a curse brought about by “bewitched women”. However, if the situation of women is read as a particular form of the scapegoat mechanism, the (whether or not ritualized) violence against women can be considered a curse or a “burden” women have to bear unjustly. Although the Bible is not without sexist tendencies, René Girard and others have argued that Judeo-Christian Scripture eventually reveals the truth of the scapegoating impulse behind our cultural institutions. In other words, according to Girard our ability to consider certain texts and habits as, for instance, “sexist” is a consequence of a knowledge gradually given to us through the biblical writings. But that’s another story… Let’s take a closer look at the women who are blamed for “the evils mankind has to endure…”
2. THE UNCANNY VALLEY – A WOMAN’S CURSE
Prometheus, Thief of Fire and God Challenger in Greek Mythology
After Zeus hid fire from humans, Prometheus stole it from the gods to give it back to mankind. Prometheus did not respect the hierarchical distinction between the human and the divine and was therefore banned to a rock in the Caucasus. Chained, Prometheus was visited daily by an eagle who ate out his liver. It is said that his liver regenerated each night because of his immortality. Prometheus was eventually freed from his eternal punishment by the hero Heracles. At the same time, Zeus had also punished mankind with Pandora, the first woman. She became the wife of Epimetheus who could not resist her, although his brother Prometheus had warned him not to accept her gift. Pandora unleashed all the evils in the world by opening a box that should have remained closed. The Greek epic poet Hesiod (between 750-650 BC) writes of Pandora: “From her is the race of women and female kind, of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”
Eve, Thief of Forbidden Fruit and God Challenger in Hebrew Mythology
After God had forbidden man to eat from the tree of knowledge, the woman who was eventually named Eve nevertheless took some of its fruit and also gave some of it to Adam, the first man. Eve did not respect the hierarchical distinction between the human and the divine and was therefore banished from the Garden of Eden, to earth, together with Adam. Eve is considered to have cursed mankind with death, suffering and all kinds of evils and troubles. Genesis 3:16-19: “The Lord God said to the woman, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ To Adam God said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, You must not eat from it, cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’”
The Thief of Women’s Clitoris and Preserver of Sacred Order in African Ritual
Bruce Parry visited the Dassanech tribe in Ethiopia. Women of this tribe are circumcised. One of the women who circumcises the girls told Parry the story that justifies this type of ritualistic violence concerning female sexuality:
“Circumcision is our culture. If we stop our culture, we will all die. If a woman with a clitoris gives birth, she, her child, everyone will die. Her clitoris will come up to her head. It’ll come out of her nose, and back into her head. It’ll kill her, she’ll die. Her father will die, her mother will die. That’s why we cannot stop circumcising girls.”
“I’m told if she doesn’t get circumcised, she won’t get married, and she’ll be cast out from the tribe.”
WATCH THE VIDEO FROM 1:38 HERE:
THE (SEXIST) MESSAGE, TIME AND AGAIN
- There is a hierarchy in society, establishing order by making clear distinctions.
- This hierarchy is to be respected; we shouldn’t compare ourselves to higher ups or compete with them. In other words, mimetic rivalry is taboo in everyday life. We should respect distinctions and differences. No hubris!
- If a person does not respect a society’s prohibitions and customs, he or she is cast out from society as he or she is considered to potentially bring a crisis (or chaos) to life. A new order is established by sacrificing an outcast (found at the margins of society – high or low) ritualistically, again and again in an unescapable cycle of events. More generally speaking, rituals allow for so-called “good” controlled violence in order to avoid “bad” uncontrollable violence from happening.
- Women are to be suspected as potential troublemakers, maybe even warmongers. The above mentioned stories claim in a sexist way: a crisis is never far away when women are around!
- Order in society, established by maintaining certain taboos and (sacrificial) rituals, is considered sacred, as a divine commandment.
IMO, your answer to Mori doesn’t fit the bill. It’s not a matter of disappearance of differences but quite the opposite. In the context of, say, distal similarity (difference is the obvious and primary fact, the “other” is seen as an out-group member) any effort toward resemblance is welcomed or even cute since it is “the sincerest form of flattery”; it’s a validation of the current state of affairs, of the prevailing order, as when a child try to imitate an adult. In the context of proximal similarity (similarity is the obvious and primary fact, the “other” is recognized as in-group member) any tendency toward dissemblance is seen as a dangerous form of corruption which could be contagious and hence is frightening. As I see it, the uncanny valley belongs in full to the realm of proximal similarity where problems come from the presence of small but unmistakable differences and not from their disappearance.
Thank you for your good points, Luc-Laurent. The other is ‘tremendum et fascinans’, indeed. When he is really ‘other’ (the out-group case), the process of imitation, of appearing similarity from otherness, is cute. When the other is less ‘other’ (the in-group case), the process of imitation, of appearing similarity from otherness, becomes frightening. An angry baby, who does not yet belong to our group of adults, might be cute. An angry adolescent… often not so much.
These are my first thoughts. I’ll think about your points some more.
Well, when the other is like me, i.e. like “us” (my reference group) similarity is all over the place, it’s the norm (since reciprocal imitation is the “elementary social fact”). If someone makes effort to imitate me, it’s still the “sincerest form of flattery” as far as it belongs to the social norms, as far as this person remains “like us”. If this person has a Tourette syndrome and imitates me frantically, it’s not the similarity s/he achieves which will be frightening to me but the obvious madness of such a behavior. Madness is in the uncanny valley as I defined it above and that’s precisely why it is frightening : it’s the appearance of unmistakable differences in what should basically be same… as me. I then fear the contagion of corruption…
Okay, Luc-Laurent, I would agree with you that a corpse, looking like a living human being as ourselves, is frightening because the differences reveal what we could become ourselves. On the other hand, if we would not be able to identify ourselves with a corpse, the differences wouldn’t appear as frightening. And why are they frightening? Only to the extent (as you actually point out) that we imagine ourselves being swallowed (‘contaminated’) by them. We could become corpses, and it’s this realization (the ultimate disappearance of differences) that is really scary.
The fear of becoming like the ‘other’ when the other is in the social margins (the uncanny valley) is not the fear of becoming like this particular individual, it’s the fear of falling out of my reference group, the group of the same, the good people, humans (homo) when ‘others’ are just ‘beasts’. We are all longing for a belonging to the group (of same) and frightened of being dragged out of this group.
We fear the contagion of corruption, as you point out. So we fear falling out of our reference group as well as the disappearance of this group.
When do differences become frightening in that sense? When the ‘gap’ between ourselves and the ‘strangers’ seems to disappear. When others truly remain ‘other’, differences are not frightening and the process of imitation (and similarity) is cute and flattering.
“When the gap between ourselves and the “strangers” seems to disappear” is a matter of rejoicing if they are to become similar to us. But if we are to become similar to them, the “strangers”, if we are thus alienating us from our reference group, that’s frightening indeed. Similarity with a stranger is a problem not because of this particular ressemblance but only because it makes me a stranger for my own reference group. Once again, we are all longing for belonging hence for mimetic social validation.
I would agree with that. That’s why, for instance in the case of adolescents, there are initiation rituals. Instead of adolescents taking over the reference group and starting a new one, the closing of the gap between the world of adolescents and the world of adults is oriented in such a way that it becomes “a matter of rejoicing”. But still, it’s the closing of the gap which makes differences problematic and that calls for “initiation/integration rituals/measures”.
That’s a clever argument but still not a decisive one. With adolescents on the verge of crossing the border to the adult domain, there’s no (natural or biological as I understand it) closing of the gap as such. These adolescents are more and more looking like adults, sure enough but, I insist, this is definitely not the problem which is, for any primitive (girardian) society, the huge risk of letting the sacred (hence violence) enter the circle of men through a ‘wild’ adolescent that still need to come under the symbolic order. In other words, adolescents are still out-group for men. In spite of their growing likeness to adults, they are by far too different before enduring a rite of passage intended to make them alike other men. So, definitely, the problem is not similarity but difference. The growing similarity between adolescent and grown men is not the problem, it’s just a clue, a signal for the true danger of their admission in the group before being made alike adult by the rite of passage.
Order is the maintenance of differences. Everything and everybody has a place. The frightening and scandalous thing is that the other(s) might take my place or the place of the group I belong to.
Most of us are kind of okay with the beggar in the street. As long as he remains there, there is no problem. The difference between ‘us’ and ‘him’ is clear. For many people a problem arises when that beggar all of a sudden gets or takes a place at ‘our’ table. The frightening or scandalous thing is that the beggar is more like me or us than we would previously experience (or acknowledge).
So again, the disappearance of differences is frightening, not the differences as such, for as long as we can clearly distinguish ‘us’ vs ‘them’ there is no problem.
“Order is maintenance of differences”. I agree with that, of course but the interesting thing with adolescents is that they have to come to such an order. Somehow, they have to agree upon it, to acknowledge it by going through the rite of passage and that’s what make them members of the clan, alike other men. I wonder if we could say something like: differences agreed upon are good because there is an agreement (everybody is same regarding this point) hence stability and peace. Differences non agreed upon are frigthening because they appear as corruption of the order (the sacred (i.e. violence) is coming in the community).